It gives me absolutely no satisfaction to know that my most-read post so far of 2019 was one explaining for a broader audience the debate over human sexuality in my home denomination. I wrote it in advance of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s annual meeting last June in Omaha. Then on the other side of that gathering, I considered the result of the vote expelling one of the oldest Covenant churches from the denomination: “For fear of losing the 75%, it is at risk of losing the 25%… plus many more that would have been drawn to an irenic evangelicalism that preferred living with the messiness of diverse unity to the diminished vitality of uniformity.”
So count me sadly unsurprised to see other Covenant congregations choosing to leave the denomination over this same issue. Just this past weekend, Vox Veniae of Austin, Texas published an open letter announcing its decision to disaffiliate from the Covenant “in light of ECC policies and practices which conflict with our discerned commitment to support LGBTQ individuals, couples and families who wish to be married and receive the support and blessing of Vox pastors and community members.”
The departure of this particular church is noteworthy because Vox Veniae been such a prominent example of a multi-ethnic church intentionally seeking affiliation with a historically Swedish-American denomination. “It’s healthy to be connected to something bigger,” founding pastor Gideon Tsang told the New York Times in 2013. And as last weekend’s open letter reiterated, Tsang and his congregation chose the Covenant because they
initially understood ECC to be an inclusive church – including all who confess faith in Christ, being rooted in a model of Christian life together that supported diversity of culture and scriptural interpretation and aligned with our values…
We affirm broad historical Christian orthodoxy–notably the centrality of Scripture, freedom in Christ, and a conscious dependence on God’s Spirit. We celebrate the ECC’s history of refusing to allow theological differences to divide a community, while at the same time advocating for the marginalized. We realize that not all Christians will arrive at the same conclusions about the Bible’s teachings on every subject. We believe that the beauty of the body of Christ comes from our shared faith in Christ, not from total agreement about every matter. Above all, we are committed to the practices above, rooted in our core values and the love of Christ, and we believe our differences and diversity serve to deepen and enrich our spiritual life together.
It’s because of that commitment to “freedom in Christ” that I twice wrote about Vox Veniae as exemplifying how the Covenant has historically represented “the Pietist Option in practice.” I even argued that the Texas church (which started as a Chinese-American congregation and intentionally sought to broaden its membership) illustrates Covenant historian Kurt Peterson’s argument that the denomination’s pietistic “commitment to broad boundaries allowed the Covenant to welcome newcomers when the age of massive European immigration ended, and its church communities became increasingly ethnically diverse.”
Alas, the Vox Veniae letter laments, “we have witnessed a historic shift from ECC’s welcoming of diverse theological views and scripture interpretations.” And unless new leadership reverses that shift and reaffirms its historic commitment to Pietism, I fear that more and more Mission Friends will depart the Covenant — involuntarily or otherwise.